How Did Daniel Understand Isaiah’s Suffering Servant?

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by Neil Godfrey

Martin Hengel

Martin Hengel (1926-2009)

Isaiah’s Suffering Servant has been co-opted by Christians as a prophecy of Jesus Christ but how did pre-Christian Jews understand this figure? My last post in a series examining Martin Hengel’s scholarly work on this question was From Israel’s Suffering (Isaiah’s Servant) to Atoning Human/Messianic Sacrifice (Daniel). Here is the long overdue follow up post. So far we have

  • surveyed the evidence Hengel finds for how the authors of the books of Zechariah and Ben Sirach/Sira interpreted the Suffering Servant we read about in Isaiah 53;
  • noted related developments in the period of the Maccabean martyrs (around 165/164 BCE) when the book of Daniel appears to have been written.

Though we sometimes read dogmatic assertions by scholars who don’t keep themselves up to date across their field of research to the effect that no pre-Christian era Jew could ever have thought that the Messiah was destined to suffer and be killed, Martin Hengel has no qualms arguing on the basis of early Jewish writings that pre-Christian Jews really do appear to have done just that. And why not? How better to make sense of a persecuted and often martyred community? We must keep in mind that there was no fixed idea of any other kind of Messiah (“anointed one”, “Christ”) in this period.

Yet we must remember that in the second century B.C.E., we do not yet possess any fixed Jewish doctrine of the Messiah – there basically never was one – but must rather deal with various ideas of anointing and the Anointed One. In Qumran, not only the Davidic Messiah but also the eschatological high priest and the prophets are considered “anointed ones.”

— Hengel, Martin, ‘The Effective History of lsaiah 53 in the Pre-Christian Period’, in The Suffering Servant: Isaiah 53 in Jewish and Christian Sources (ed. Bernd Janowski and Peter Stuhlmacher; Grand Rapids, MI: William B. Eerdmans, 2004), p103. (Bailey is responsible for translating Hengel’s essay into English and updating it in consultation with the author.)

Hengel warns us not to expect an author to introduce the new ideas or interpretations emerging in the Maccabean period with an unambiguous supporting citation to an earlier text.

Because the ideas introduced are new, they are at first only cautiously hinted at. Isaiah 53, as a unique text in the Old Testament, may have helped this development along, though at first the collective understanding [i.e. that the Suffering Servant represented Israel] stood in the foreground, and only certain aspects of the whole text exerted an influence. It also needs to be remembered, as already said, that the pre-Christian Apocrypha and Pseudepigrapha contain almost no literal scriptural citations. We can therefore conduct only a very cautious search for traces. (p. 96)

So the argument is suggestive rather than conclusive. We might further consider the interpretative power of the argument: Does it explain the emergence of earliest Christian interpretations more directly than a radical revision of Jewish thought being sparked by a belief in a crucified leader’s resurrection from the dead?

Let’s get started. read more »


What’s Wrong with the Word “Pericope”?

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by Tim Widowfield

English: From Gospel lectionary Mt. Athos Dion...

From the Gospel lectionary Mt. Athos Dionys. Cod. 587 (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Sometimes I discover the most curious things en route to learning something else. I can’t even remember why now, but for some reason I recently stumbled upon the definition of pericope (peh-RIH-kuh-pee) at the Oxford Biblical Studies Online site.

If you’ve read my posts on the Memory Mavens, you’re no doubt aware that I sometimes refer to a common practice in current NT studies wherein scholars tend to associate concepts, ideas, and even words they don’t like with form criticism. By such association, they dismiss anything they find offensive. “Don’t touch that,” they imply. “It has form-critical cooties.”


Here’s an unexpected example from Oxford:


A term used in Latin by Jerome for sections of scripture and taken over by form critics to designate a unit, or paragraph, of material, especially in the gospels, such as a single parable, or a single story of a miracle. (emphasis mine)

Reading that definition, you might get the impression that Rudolf Bultmann and Martin Dibelius resurrected a word that hadn’t been in use for 1,500 years. But can that be true? Well, it would appear the Mark Goodacre thinks so. In a post from back in 2013 he recommends we abandon the term, for several reasons, and concludes: read more »


Isaiah’s Suffering Servant Before Christianity

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by Neil Godfrey

A bibliography of a few Vridar posts taking an in-depth look at the Suffering Servant figure in Isaiah and how it was understood before Christianity. . . .

The Influence of Isaiah’s Suffering Servant Before Christianity

Isaiah 53 and the Suffering Servant is a major text for Christianity (in the New Testament it is used to interpret Christ’s death) but what did it mean to adherents of Judaism before Christianity?

Did any Jewish interpretations anticipate the meaning it held for later Christians?

To what extent were the authors of the gospels innovative in their use of Isaiah 53 (and Isaiah as a whole)? To what extent were they simply employing ideas they absorbed from their surroundings?

Is it possible that Christianity itself evolved in part from earlier sectarian understandings of Isaiah 53?

This post looks at some work by Martin Hengel and demonstrates the way other pre-Christian texts — Sirach and Zechariah  — interpreted Isaiah’s Suffering Servant figure.

From Israel’s Suffering (Isaiah’s Servant) to Atoning Human/Messianic Sacrifice (Daniel)

The previous post showed the apparent influence of the Suffering Servant of Isaiah 53 upon the books of Zechariah and Ben Sirach/Sira. This post pauses to look at some background before resuming with the way the Book of Daniel adapted Isaiah’s Suffering Servant idea in the light of contemporary events — around 165/164 BCE.

A chapter by Martin Hengel is the basis for the posts.

It appears that at the end of this post I anticipated writing one more to conclude the series. I must complete that as soon.

Other posts: read more »

Love, Relationships and Terrorism

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by Neil Godfrey

frictionPrevious posts in this series looking at Friction: How Radicalization Happens to Them and Us by Clark McCauley and Sophia Moskalenko:

A number of critics who are more interested in attacking religion, especially Islam, than in making the effort to understand what scholarly research has uncovered about why individuals become terrorists have often missed a critical reason for radicalization. This reason seems too simple and some have scoffed at the idea as if it is some left-wing loony nonsense — such as anthropologist Scott Atran’s claim that street soccer networks can enable us to predict who is at risk of extremism. It is a fact, however, that some of us over time do get mixed up in things neither we nor any of our acquaintances would ever have suspected. And it’s not because we convert to some fanatical religious idea.



McCauley and Moskalenko introduce us to Sophia (Sonia) Perovskaya, a Russian girl born into nobility and who was attracted to idealistic student movements seeking to improve the lot of the peasantry. Her ideals forbade her from crossing the line of violence.

Like many others who ventured “into the people,” Sonia did not have much success in mobilizing the peasants. Instead, it appears from her letters at the time that she became more and more involved in the mission of making peasants’ lives better, having seen the horrible conditions in which they lived.

Failure to politicize the peasants led a fellow revolutionary, Andrei Zhelyabov (we met him in the first post of this series), to persuade a few that violence was the only answer. The peasants were too besotted with the Czar; kill the Czar and they would be forced to engage in actions for a better society. Sophia’s response was absolute refusal:

“revolutionaries must not consider themselves above the laws of humanity. Our exceptional position should not cloud our heads. First and foremost we are humans.”

read more »

The Flaw in Bart’s Argument for the Jewish Rejection of Jesus

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by Neil Godfrey

Bart Ehrman continues to address the conventional explanation for why Jews rejected Jesus as the Messiah in Another Problem with Calling Jesus the Messiah.

That explanation tells us that the Jewish idea of a Messiah or Christ was that he was to be a conquering Davidic King who would overthrow Israel’s enemies and usher in a utopian reign with the Jews as the top nation.

Yet if that were the reason Jesus was not accepted as the Messiah then some interesting questions surface.

Ehrman has pointed to one of these questions without realizing it. He has pointed out that the term “messiah” is nowhere mentioned in connection with the Suffering Servant in the Book of Isaiah as if that should be a decisive point. But nor do we find the word for “messiah” in any of the standard biblical passages that are said to speak of the conquering Davidic messiah. Notice (the list it taken from Matthew Novenson’s study of the term “Christ”):

Genesis 49:10

The scepter shall not depart from Judah, nor the commander’s staff from between his feet, until that which is his comes; and the obedience of the peoples is his.

Numbers 24:17

A star will go forth from Jacob; and a scepter will rise from Israel; it will shatter the borders of Moab and tear down all the sons of Sheth.

2 Samuel 7:12-13

I will raise up your seed after you, who will come forth from your body, and I will establish his kingdom. He will build a house for my name, and I will establish the throne of his kingdom forever.

Isaiah 11:1-2

A shoot will come forth from the stump of Jesse, and a branch will grow from his roots. The spirit of YHWH will rest upon him.

read more »


Another study of ISIS

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by Neil Godfrey

Screen Shot 2015-11-09 at 8.01.17 pmAbout a week ago I wrote a few notes on my reading of ISIS: Inside the Army of Terror by Michael Weiss and Hassan Hassan. I followed that with Jessica Stern’s and J.M. Berger’s ISIS: The State of Terror. It’s a great companion to former work; don’t hold off thinking it might be redundant if you’ve already read the former.

One small detail but a most valuable asset is an appendix by a Brown University doctoral student, Megan K. McBride, providing one of the most readable and informative outlines of the history and nature of Islam and where the various movements that culminated in ISIS fit in to that overview. My first reaction to reading it was to want to contact the author and seek permission to post it in Vridar.

A principal difference from the Weiss and Hassan study is that Stern and Berger explore in much greater depth the way ISIS is really such a modern phenomenon with the strategic ways it has exploited modern communication technologies, especially social media. I first heard the expression “barbarism empowered by modern technology” as a graduate student to refer to the Nazi machine of World War 2. ISIS is reverting to the most primitive forms of barbarism but empowering that barbaric message through modern communications technology. Beheadings have been historically employed as a “mercifully” swift means of execution; not for ISIS where some deliberately seek out blunt knives to do the job. The object is to strike fear, of course, as well as demonstrate to idealistic potential recruits just how serious they are. Bizarrely bloodthirsty messages are somehow mixed with video shots of an ideal visionary society, a caliphate where children are happy (even if playing with decapitated heads on corpse-lined streets) and the true ways of Allah ensure a purified “utopia”. Gone are the defeatist messages of the old terrorists like Al Qaeda with their expectations of being overwhelmed by godless forces and hopes for a future paradise. The heavenly kingdom is here now; the jihadists are strong and terrifying in their strength. That is their message and that is what makes them different from other terrorist groups. read more »

More Scenes from Bali

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by Neil Godfrey

I always dreamed of coming to Bali and getting locked in as a result of a volcanic eruption that would not allow my flight to return to Australia. But catching a cold while stuck here was definitely not part of that plan. Since the pace has slowed, however, I have time to post a few more scenes:

A procession to a local temple:


Entering the temple gate . . . . read more »

And now it’s Bart’s turn

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by Neil Godfrey

One does expect a little better from someone who makes a living out of biblical studies and even charges audiences for his scholarly wisdom.

There was not a Jew on the planet who thought the messiah was going to be crushed by his enemies — humiliated, tortured, and executed.  That was the *opposite* of what the messiah would do.  To call Jesus the messiah made no sense — i.e., it was nonsense – virtually by definition.  

That’s according to Bart Ehrman in a recent blog post, Jesus and the Messianic Prophecies.

Has Bart Ehrman not yet caught up with the scholarship of a prominent Jew on early Jewish beliefs, Daniel Boyarin?

Suffering Messiah is a Very Jewish Idea

Or worse yet, the even earlier work of a most prominent Christian scholar, Martin Hengel? read more »


James the Brother of the Lord and James the Theologian of the Matrix

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by Neil Godfrey

In his crusading zeal to slash and burn mythicism James McGrath is demonstrating once more his unfortunate lack of awareness of the actual content mythicist arguments and has done his readers a more general disservice by misrepresenting the nature of mainstream arguments on how various interpolations have worked their way into manuscript traditions.

Somehow a discussion on the authenticity of Galatians 1:19 (Paul meeting James “the Brother of the Lord”) in http://www.patheos.com/blogs/exploringourmatrix/2015/10/does-coffee-prevent-temple-tantrums.html. A misinformed comment so impressed the professor that he made a special post of it titled Interpolation Mythicism.

Somehow the only argument for interpolation that I am aware of is not addressed from what I have seen of the discussion. The evidence for interpolation is not rock solidly indisputable but it is suggestive: See James Brother of the Lord: Another Case for Interpolation. There is evidence, as noted in this post, that the passage “brother of the Lord” was not original but a later copyists insertion.

And the evidence is of the sort that is used by mainstream scholars to argue for other cases of possible interpolation.

And the argument in this case is actually noted by someone arguing against mythicism.

And most mythicist arguments of which I am aware simply note that there is no mention of Jesus in the phrase and that the expression was has other known referents.

(Readers wondering why I have not made these points on McGrath’s blog should be aware that McGrath will not tolerate any comments from me on his blog.)

Interestingly James McGrath has “World Table” terms of service add-on for his blog comments. Conditions are most noble. I would be good to see James the Theologian practice them whenever he decides to address mythicism. read more »


Cremation on a Bali Beach

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by Neil Godfrey

Sitting in a pleasant warung one morning when I heard clanging of gongs and rhythm of drums; looked out to see a street procession . . . .

Screen Shot 2015-11-04 at 12.10.06 pm

On asking the waitress I learned it was a cremation and I could go and see the ceremony on the beach just around the corner.

Come to Bali! Relax on the beaches. Witness cremations.

Screen Shot 2015-11-04 at 12.14.59 pm

By the time I arrived the body had been taken down from its carriage; some of those in the procession were sheltering in the shade.

Screen Shot 2015-11-04 at 12.18.29 pm
Others were crowding around the body to lay on it their parting gifts and offerings. read more »


The Good Professor on the Verge of Apoplexy

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by Neil Godfrey

Our good professor and Clarence L. Goodwin Chair in New Testament Language and Literature at Butler University James McGrath continues to distort consistent rational argument beyond all recognition with his frenzied attacks on both biblical inerrantists (somehow McG manages not only to accuse them of “attacking the Bible“, “self-righteousness” and, yes, “defending sin“, but finds his own words are even worth framing!). He has clearly never done a course or read a book on how to win wayward minds over to more reasonable and enlightened thinking. And right on top of those mental flailings comes Jerry Coyne, the scientist who once scoffed at McG’s pleading efforts to have theological authority given equal billing with the authority of the scientific academy, to see right through the empty pomposity of the claims that the evidence for the historical existence of Jesus is as strong as for any ancient figure of history.

The occasion in question was a BBC article, Jesus ‘not a real person’ many believe. It would appear that Wells, Doherty, Brodie, Freke and Gandy, Humphreys, Harpur and others have been having some impact. Coyne rubs salt into spear-wound with a blog post BBC poll: 40% of Brits don’t believe that “Jesus was a real person,” but BBC assumes he was!

McGrath in hysterics accuses Coyne of subscribing to “conspiracy theories” and “denialism”. Not just any denialism, but “history-denialsm”: Further History-Denialism from Jerry Coyne

Hoo boy. So a reasonably intelligent person can see the dubiousness of the arguments that the theologians need to be true to justify their existence (at least for many of them) and our good professor is as helpless and incoherent as when faced with fellow believers who see only naked flesh when due reverence would have them admire only the finest theological silk and embroidery.







Peter as Apostate Apostle in the Gospel of Matthew?

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by Neil Godfrey

Peter2Robert Gundry in a newly published book, Peter: False Disciple and Apostate according to Saint Matthew, describes himself as “a conservative evangelical Christian” with an interest in “the understanding that makes best sense of Matthew’s text when it comes to Peter.” His argument is that

Matthew portrays Peter as a false disciple of Jesus, a disciple who went so far as to apostatize; that Matthew does so to warn Christians against the loss of salvation through falsity-exposing apostasy; that this warning fits the Matthean theme of apostasy-inducing persecution; and that the danger of apostasy fits the further Matthean theme of the ongoing presence of false disciples in the church . . . till the end. 

That’s quite a daring proposal for most of us who have long viewed the Gospel of Matthew as the one gospel that does more than any other to exalt the role of Peter in the foundational history of the Church. Some of us have wondered if the Gospel of Mark was meant to be having a dig at the disciples for their faithlessness, and some have seen the Gospel of John as subtly suggesting that Peter’s spiritual qualities were somewhat inferior to those of “the Beloved Disciple”. But the Gospel of Matthew (henceforth “Matthew”) is famous for Jesus pronouncing that he was giving Peter the keys of the Kingdom of Heaven and “upon this rock I will build my church”.

So any suggestion that Matthew viewed Peter as an apostate is going to have some explaining to do.

First question: if Matthew thought Peter was a false apostle then why didn’t he say so directly? read more »


ISIS: Inside the Army of Terror by Michael Weiss and Hassan Hassan

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by Neil Godfrey

ISIS-Inside-the-Army-of-TerrorThere was a time I needed to read Marx and Mao to orient myself to the essential thought of the ideologies challenging the West. Never did I imagine that in my lifetime those works would be gathering dust and I’d be seeking out the likes of al-Maqdisi’s Democracy a Religion and Naji’s The Management of Savagery (and more recently, al-Suri’s – original name Nasur – Call for a Global Islamic Resistance)  to get a handle on contemporary threats.

Not long ago I devoured a cluster of works on Islam and terrorism and posted on snippets of that reading; the last few weeks I’ve been trying to catch up with Islamism (as distinct from Islam the religion and even “terrorism” per se — though there are obvious overlaps, of course). So most recently I’ve read Islam and the Future of Tolerance: a dialogue (by Sam Harris and Maajid Nawaz), Maajid Nawaz’s experience as a leader in a group with a long-term strategy of establishing Islamist regimes, Radical: my journey from Islamist extremism to a democratic awakening, Ed Husain’s The Islamist : why I joined radical Islam in Britain, what I saw inside and why I left, and Isis: inside the army of terror by Michael Weiss and Hassan Hassan. (Still on my to-read list are three other very recent works on ISIS — by Stern & Berger, Cockburn and Burke.

I recommend Radical and The Islamist to anyone who thinks all Muslims are by the nature of their religion somewhat medieval in their values. Nawaz’s upbringing was not particularly religious but Hasain’s certainly was. Reading the lives of these two, especially that of Ed Husain, is an eye-opener to the stark difference between the religion of Islam and the ideology of Islamism.

ISIS: inside the army of terror is a depressing yet informative study of the group’s origins, its brutal nature and strikingly sudden emergence. Michael Weiss (Twitter) and Hassan Hassan (Facebook Community) interviewed many persons closely associated with terrorist organisations and others among the military and political establishments that have been directly involved with events connected to the rise of Islamic State.

The roots of ISIS appear to go right back to Saddam Hussein’s preparations for an American led invasion of his country. Well before the occupation he had prepared safe-houses, secret arms storages and underground economic machinations that would help sustain their secret networks and ongoing armed struggle against the occupiers. Much of Iraq’s army melted into this underground network after March-April 2003 and became the backbone of the various resistance and terrorist movements that followed. read more »


Celebrate at the Biblical Studies Carnival

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by Tim Widowfield

The float of the King carnival parading in Pat...

The float of the King carnival parading in Patras, Greece in Georgiou I square. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Over at the Reading Acts blogPhillip J. Long has announced the Last Call for Biblical Studies Carnival Links for October 2015.

I invite you to email me suggested links (plong42 at gmail.com) or a direct message via twitter (@plong42). What have you read this month that was challenging, simulating, or maybe even a bit strange? This is a good time to promote a less well-known blog you enjoy, or you can send a link to your own work. Sometimes you just need to flog your own blog to get it noticed.

If you read anything on Vridar this October that struck your fancy, why not drop Phillip a line and let him know about it? Neil and I would appreciate it very much. And thanks again for reading Vridar.